…Maybe You Shouldn’t Say That…

11 Nov

How would you feel if 1,000,000 people watched a video that severely damaged your reputation before you even knew it existed?  Exactly this happened to Domino’s executives in 2009, when a video of two North Carolina employees using ingredients, which they had shoved up their noses, to make a pizza went viral.  As the Domino’s example shows, information moves very rapidly in today’s world.  Through social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, and review sites, like Yelp and Angie’s List, individuals easily express and receive ideas and opinions.

Because positive and negative information about businesses can spread so quickly, employees need to be careful about the things that they say.  Customers do not distinguish between an individual and a business and will therefore hold an entire business responsible for a single employee’s mistake.  While most employee gaffes won’t become national scandals, they can still hurt businesses locally through bad coverage on forums like Twitter and Yelp.

Small business employees tend to be at an especially high risk of making mistakes in the things that they say and therefore, need to be especially careful to avoid problems.  Small businesses are frequently unable to match the prices of larger chains and therefore, rely on relationships and interaction to maintain customers.  Because of this reliance on relationships, employees at small businesses tend to engage in more social interaction with customers.  Employees at these businesses are also at a greater risk of making mistakes because they tend to be more knowledgeable about potentially sensitive topics like the business’ financial information and other customers.

To avoid problems, small business employees should avoid the following sensitive topics.

Don’t Talk About Customers

As any celebrity who has been followed around by dozens of paparazzi can tell you, people love gossip.  For this reason, patrons may try to steer conversations in the direction of talking about other customers.  You might be tempted to vent your frustration about a customer who has upset you, or gossip as a way to pass time on a slow day.  However, you must resist this urge.  Once that piece of information has left your mouth, you cannot control where it goes.  The customer could easily find out about it, get mad, and begin a vendetta against your business on sites like Yelp or Facebook.

Employees must also resist the urge to talk to one another about customers because they cannot know who is listening.  Over the summer, I thought I was covering the phone’s mouthpiece when I used the word “crazy” to describe a customer I was on the phone with to my boss.  I later learned that the phones mouthpiece was in a different place than I had thought.  Luckily the customer did not hear, but the incident could have had serious consequences.

Avoid Giving Out Financial Information

Everyone has probably heard the old saying “knowledge is power” at some point.  This adage is especially applicable to a firm’s financial information.  Customers are constantly looking for discounted prices, and financial information provides them with evidence to support their bartering for a lower price.  They might, then, get upset when a firm is unable to provide these discounts.  A firm’s financial information also helps competitors develop a strategy that gives them a leg up.

Requests for financial information are not usually so blatant as to mention revenue or profits.  Rather, customers are usually more subtle in their requests for financial information, asking how busy a business has been lately or asking the prices of many items when they have little intention of buying.  Employees must also be careful not to talk about financial information with one another in front of customers because they do not know who is listening or to whom a person that is listening might give the information they hear.

Don’t Provide Too Much Personal Information

The toughest situations I have ever experienced at work were when customers, with whom I enjoyed my professional relationship but with whom I did not want to be friends, made offers to hang out outside of work.  These situations are very sticky because businesses cannot expect their employees to hang out with individuals whom they do not want to spend time with just because they are customers; yet turning someone down without upsetting them and potentially harming your business is also difficult.

Sharing of some personal information is necessary to develop beneficial business relations, yet you must control the kind of information you share to prevent these relationships from evolving beyond business and losing their business value.  Avoid giving out information that is too personal like private phone numbers, addresses or off-days, all of which might send the wrong signal.  Stay on more neutral topics that allow you to develop a bond with customers but are not too personal such as sports or hobbies.

Ways To Avoid Overly Personal Topics

Sometimes customers will bring these topics up and you will be forced to answer to avoid being rude.  In these situations, the key is to be as vague as possible so as to not say anything that could potentially harm your business or offend a customer.  If asked how business has been lately you might say something like “We’re chugging along.”  If asked where you live, you might give a response like “Far away” or “A couple of towns over.”  By avoiding these personal topics, you can prevent the kind of gaffes that could seriously harm your business.

by Jesse Blant

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One Response to “…Maybe You Shouldn’t Say That…”

  1. Travis Lawrence November 16, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    I found this post very interesting. While management communications tend to focus a lot on what to say, this post shows the equally important focus of what not to say. It presents management communication from a new perspective.

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